President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address made minor headlines in Bahrain by ignoring its 11-month uprising. Pro-democracy protesters expected nothing less, having vocalized their realization of America’s double-standard for months. This new batch of silence, though, turns out to be particularly potent.
Not only did Obama refuse to tell Bahrainis or Americans what his administration is up to - he won’t even tell Congress.
Hoping to polish U.S.- Bahraini relations through arms, the White House and Pentagon carried their weapons package straight into the unwelcome obstacle of democracy. A small coalition of Senators (allegedly six) opposed to the deal, first leaked in September, would briefly raise Bahrain’s profile high enough to temporarily block the delivery. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon knows the odds are stacked against Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement and hasn’t stopped lobbying the cause.
“Imagine if everyone in Congress had kept quiet and this arms sale had been completed,” Wyden wondered in December. “What kind of message would this have sent the world or to the people aspiring for freedom and democracy? America should NOT be rewarding brutal regimes with arms. It’s that simple.”
Instead of encouraging true reform in Bahrain, the Obama administration decided to respond by expanding the island’s political vacuum and media blackout. Copying the process of his “National Dialogue,” which collapsed in less a month, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) took center stage as the administration defended its actions. All questions related to the arms sale and daily state-sponsored violence were redirected to the impending BICI, ultimately highlighting the regime’s willingness to reform. By offering silence and inaction to Bahrain’s opposition, the Obama administration telegraphed its intent to deploy arms under the BICI’s cover.
"There is merit in naming and shaming and embarrassing, in pushing, in enlisting public opinion, domestic and international,” said Cherif Bassiouni, who chaired and initially defended the King’s inquiry. “This is not the style of Secretary Clinton or President Obama, and I'm not sure they are necessarily doing the right choice.”
Nevertheless, the administration has decided that Bahrain’s profile dipped enough to smuggle the arms past Congress - using the most duplicitous means available. As Foreign Policy reports, “the State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process.” The administration “simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale,” disregarding the need for formal notifications and a public explanation. Congressional sources said the State Department found a “legal loophole” around $1 million notifications; the $50+ million package will be broken down into “multiple sales of less than $1 million” to “avoid the burden.” The packages’ contents (reportedly Humvees, missiles and other technology) are now being kept secret.
"The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse," Wyden told The Cable in response to the administration's actions. "Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have."
Naturally, U.S. officials continue to base their argument precisely on the “recommendations” of King Hamad’s BICI. They will likely hedge their language along a similar line as one of Foreign Policy’s anonymous sources, who welcomed the King’s “important initial steps” before urging him “to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation." After exploiting the BICI’s torture findings and rejecting its superficial reforms, Al Wefaq and a growing majority of street protesters no longer trust the King’s ability to reform.
"This message of ‘business as usual' will only strengthen the regime's belief that there will continue to be lack of consequences to their human rights violations internationally," Maryam al-Khawaja, the head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights BCHR, told Foreign Policy. "At a time when the United States is already being criticized for practicing double standards when it comes to the so-called Arab spring, to the protesters in Bahrain, the U.S. selling any arms to the government of Bahrain is exactly like Russia selling arms to Syria. Bahrain has become the United States' test on how serious they are about standing against human rights violations, and they are failing miserably."
The administration’s impending shipment comes three weeks after the State Department’s Victoria Nuland insisted that Bahrain hasn’t “fallen off Washington’s radar.” Of course not - the administration is actively minimizing its uprising. More weeks of silence would elapse as funerals were dispersed with ubiquitous tear gas and protesters died of “mysterious” circumstances. No U.S. response followed the government’s assault on Al Wefaq’s office, while Nabeel Rajab’s confrontation with security forces prompted both concern and praise for the King. The BCHR chairman is a vocal critic of U.S. policy in Bahrain and has directed his energy towards its double-standard. These factors generate a jarring experience: the Obama administration seeks to restore public confidence in U.S.-Bahraini relations, but must do so in secret.
The same juxtaposition is unfolding at a policy level. Maria McFarland, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, predicted in September, "By continuing its relationship as if nothing had happened, the US is furthering an unstable situation."